Health and education spending is at record levels. This budget should have gone further on tax cuts | The Canberra Times

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The biggest story of the 2020 budget is not, surprisingly, the 12-figure record deficit. It is not the looming trillion dollars in debt. And it is certainly not any supposed unfairness. It’s the loss of a once-in-a-decade chance to shift the economic trajectory of the budget. In normal times, the budget imposes practical limits on government spending. Government can never do everything it wants, because to do so would result in massive deficits, and the public still looks askance at unfunded spending, despite persistent efforts by progressives to undermine this sensible instinct. But in a crisis, different rules apply. Deficits seemingly no longer matter, and governments are free to pursue a broader agenda, for better or worse; as Kevin Rudd did when he found himself unshackled as a result of the Global Financial Crisis. Yet the current government has eschewed longer-term reforms in this budget, despite announcing hundreds of billions of dollars in temporary measures. Indeed, in an interview following his budget speech, the Treasurer favourably compared his massive deficit budget to the Rudd budgets on the very basis that his measures were temporary and not permanent. The Finance Minister has also made similar claims. While the temporary nature of some of the spending initiatives is welcome – if indeed they turn out to be temporary – the government will regret passing up the opportunity to put their stamp on the future direction of the country. For example, in the lead-up to the budget, there was a lot of focus on the need to bring forward tax cuts to stimulate economic growth and productivity. The government had already laid out a vision for tax reform, which it could have amplified if it felt the circumstances warranted it. Yet in the end, the government’s response was to bring forward only part of its already legislated cuts, and to leave the most substantive reforms (stage 3, which substantially flattens the tax structure and returns years of bracket creep) four years in the future. This was far too timid. Not only has the budgetary cost of stage 3 already been incorporated into the medium-term budget projections, which significantly lessens the already artificially inflated 10-year cost of introducing it early; but by shifting only stage 2 forward, stage 3 appears even less connected to the overall package. Legislated or not, the government has made stage 3 a good deal more vulnerable to being attacked or overturned. This is to say nothing of the prospect that the government could have used the political cover of the massive welfare package of JobKeeper and JobSeeker to more radically cut taxes, or simply shift the tax burden away from income taxes and towards consumption taxes. They could have even sought to push revenue-raising responsibility back to the newly emboldened state governments. At least with respect to income tax, the end result will be some permanent reduction in the tax burden. For company tax, the government has limited itself to completely temporary measures that will wash out of the economy by 2022. It is not that the investment allowance proposed by the government – which will allow businesses up to $5 billion in turnover to immediately write off asset purchases – is a bad policy. But it has two readily apparent flaws. The first is that some of the expenditure eligible to be written off under this policy would either have happened regardless of the incentive, or will simply be investment that has been shifted forward a year to qualify for the allowance. Once the incentive has expired, Australian businesses are again facing deeply uncompetitive tax rates in a global business environment where it is only becoming harder to attract funds. It is not clear there will be a sustained increase in business investment in the medium term, yet this is what is desperately needed for sustainable growth. Given the uncertainty in markets as a result of COVID-19, stimulating genuine new investment seems even harder than it would be normally. The second problem is that, with the budget deeply in the red and debt growing, the government will find it far harder to introduce business-friendly policies the second time. For a government that has had so much difficulty in passing legislation that will improve the longer-term prospects of business, it is quite extraordinary that they did not attempt to introduce something more permanent. READ MORE: Even if it was less generous up front, a permanent investment allowance would be a far superior policy to what was announced in the budget. Moreover, the absence of a more enduring vision leaves the government vulnerable to criticisms that its short-term handouts target the “wrong” groups. Spending on health, education and childcare are all at record levels and have been growing consistently and rapidly for years; yet the government is criticised for not having new spending plans in these areas. Some are also criticising the “fact” that only 0.038 per cent of the budget is focused on women, as if women do not benefit from low- and middle-income tax cuts, own and run businesses that benefit from the investment allowance, or benefit from greater employment prospects as a result of wage subsidies. If this budget proves anything, it’s that the government cannot win a fight where presumed or actual disadvantage is sliced in a thousand different ways to justify more and more spending. If a $214 billion deficit isn’t enough, nothing ever will be. The government’s strategy seems to be driven, at least in part, by the desire to protect itself from charges of hypocrisy over the Coalition’s past attacks on Rudd’s stimulus. Yet a far better defence would have been to argue that, as circumstances have compelled the government to run the budget deep into the red, it would be better if we had something tangible to point to at the end of it all. The aim must be not merely to survive COVID-19, but to build a better economy on the other side. This government has proven far more adept at the tactics of politics than most of its predecessors, but it is still lacking the strategic vision for the country we will need after the pandemic.

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